University Presidents on “Irrelevance”

This morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a survey of more than 1,000 university presidents conducted for the Chronicle by the by the Pew Research Center. What’s on university presidents’ minds?

“We’re staring fundamental change in the face,” said Stephen R. Portch, a former chancellor of the University System of Georgia. “Our system is bankrupt, and we’ve got to have a new model.”

“We should be worried,” said Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system. “We are in a flat world. We are going to have to evolve.”

For years I’ve been saying that our nation’s universities must evolve to reflect basic changes in their broader societal contexts or risk becoming completely irrelevant (even though being misquoted about this caused me no end of trouble). Unfortunately, the universities with the most resources, the brightest faculty, the most gifted students – in other words, the universities best positioned to show real leadership by reinventing themselves in ways that will inspire others – are almost certain not to do so. Why not? Because for the foreseeable future the elite are in no real danger:

Throughout the survey of presidents, the most positive responses, and justifiably so, came from leaders of highly selective colleges, which have healthy balance sheets, more top-achieving applicants than they can possibly admit, and a strong portfolio of global partnerships.

There will always be a small group of rather wealthy, extremely well-prepared students competing for admission to these universities. Consequently, the elite universities seem to feel no financial fear – because there will always be enough students vying to attend, and they will always be able to afford to pay for tuition, textbooks, and other fees.

I can’t help but be reminded of Alma 32:13 and 16:

And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.

And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word?

Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed—yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty.

Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am NOT reminded of this scripture because I think the elite universities are “sinning” and consequently need to “repent” for the evil they’re doing. I AM reminded of this scripture because elite universities need to find the will to change, because they won’t be compelled to change. And those who lead out here will be blessed.

Whether you like it or not, the elites have an important role to play in higher education. MIT OpenCourseWare is a good example. Look at how many schools were inspired by the OCW program – from K-12 schools to community colleges to mid-tier schools to other elites. For better or worse the elites are the schools to which the others look for leadership. Along the lines of Spiderman’s “With great power comes great responsibility,” I believe the elites have an obligation (and the grant / discretionary budgets) to experiment with innovative models that they can prove serve more students, better, at lower cost.

The Open Education field, especially, ought to see the current crisis in higher education as an opportunity. We have part of the solution to this problem. However, when the crisis is largely understood to be grounded in (1) cost and (2) effectiveness, and for some unknown reason some very vocal members of the Open Education community disparage anyone who speaks about (1) cost or (2) effectiveness, it’s easy to see why the field is slow to make headway. Personally, I continue to believe that standard deviations per dollar is the Golden Ratio we must understand if Open Education wants a seat at the table as system-wide solutions are discussed. A greater understanding of the Golden Ratio is what we’re pursuing with the Utah Open Textbooks initiative.

And, while it takes this post slightly off topic, we have to admit that MOOCs and their like are not the answer to higher education’s problems:

Expanding access very likely means serving students who are less prepared, who are the first in their families to attend college, and who are juggling classes with work and family, said Mr. Smith… “If we want to get the numbers up,” he said, “colleges are going to have to deal with people they’ve never seen—or who they’ve seen and failed.”

While there’s not much that educational research can say definitively, one thing we can say is that underprepared students almost always fail in open-ended, mostly unstructured, essentially discovery-based environments. So while MOOCs continue to be excellent options for PhDs, graduate students, professionals, and other highly prepared, highly motivated people, don’t expect to see them displacing your local community or technical college any time soon.